Friday, June 24, 2005

MSM: Turnout High in Iran in Presidential Runoff

The International Herald Tribune:
Iranians voted on Friday to decide a two-man presidential race between a well-known political moderate and his hard-line rival, who asserts that the country must reclaim the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Early turnout was strong, but the runoff election was considered too close to predict. Initial results were not expected until early Saturday. READ MORE

The winner of the first round a week ago, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has received a flood of support from progressive and business groups seeking to protect liberalizing reforms introduced since the late 1990s.

His surprise opponent, Tehran's ultraconservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has built on his strong appeal among Iran's impoverished classes and powerful forces opposing any changes to the Islamic regime.

Election overseers have warned the elite Revolutionary Guards and its vigilante wings - strong Ahmadinejad followers - to stay clear of polling sites following accusations of intimidation and other abuses in the balloting last week.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted Friday that the election process was "totally healthy" and urged voters to turn out en masse in the second round.

Allegations that the first round was marred by dirty tricks orchestrated by unelected conservatives have loomed large over the tight runoff between Rafsanjani, 70, and Ahmadinejad, 49. But Khamenei expressed total confidence in the election process, saying that he trusted the officials and watchdogs charged with overseeing the election, and maintained that there had been no problem with the first round.

The two candidates each represent a distinct vision and voice for a country struggling to find its priorities. The race also exposes the estrangement between those who feel empowered by the openings since the 1990s and those who feel embittered.

Rafsanjani became the default choice for reformists after their main hopeful finished back in the pack during the first round.

Rafsanjani stumbled to first place with just 21 percent of the vote - well short of predictions.

Right behind was Ahmadinejad with about 19.5 percent - forcing Iran's first presidential runoff, since no candidate got the 50 percent required for victory.

The brief campaign this week was all about trying to attract voters from the defeated first-round candidates, who ranged from reformists to staunch conservatives.

Rafsanjani only had to sit back and collect support. Political factions and other groups flocked to his side in fear that a Ahmadinejad victory would push Iran back toward the rigid Islamic system of the 1979 revolution.

"Rafsanjani can manage the important issues of Iran, especially the nuclear story, in a moderate way," said Reza Khatibi, 47, a bookstore owner. "If he's not elected, I will leave this country. It will be so dangerous."

Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, urges a return to the values of sacrifice and common purpose espoused after Iran's revolution toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy.

He tried to soften his image Wednesday, saying, "I am against extremism."

For the nuclear talks, Ahmadinejad is expected to introduce a new team that could include some of Iran's most anti-Western clerics.

Ahmadinejad told a news conference last week that he could not foresee improved ties with any country that "seeks hostility" against Iran, a clear reference to the United States.
This reporter needed to drive around Tehran and see for himself the low turnout around the city.